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Celebrating My 'Small' Victory Over Social Anxiety

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“Alright,” I said, looking myself in the eyes in my mirror as I pushed a piece of crimped hair out of my eye. “Today’s the day. Today will be different. Today, I’m going to do it. I’m going to look somebody in the eye and say hi!’” I felt the edges of my resolve begin to crumble at the prospect, but I couldn’t let myself back down. This was something I had to do if I was ever going to like myself at all. I tried to deliver that message to myself through my eyes, glaring at myself in the mirror and adjusting my clothes a little more.

I heard Mom calling my name from downstairs, so I quickly grabbed my Bible and purse and ran down the steps, hurtling out the garage door, where I saw the rest of my family waiting in the minivan. I was last, as usual. Oh, well. I jumped into the open door and promptly banged my head on the ceiling. “Oww!” I cried, even as I closed the van door and Dad began backing the car out of the garage. I heard my brother and sister snickering, but chose to ignore them. It was all so typical.

We drove to the church listening to the familiar sounds of a choir on the radio. I looked out the window at the twilight sun setting over the passing trees and soccer fields, trying desperately to remember what my counselor had told me last week: “Imagine that you’re a princess. Hold your head high and look people in the eye. You have dignity and poise and you are good enough.”

I’d practiced at home, but I practiced a little more now, holding my chin up a little higher and summoning those alien feelings of competence and self-confidence. They came a little easier in the car or at home, when I was only by myself or around my family.

But in youth group, among all those people I should know and be friends with, everything inside me retreated. I just wanted to hide and not be looked at. I couldn’t feel the tiniest shred of confidence inside my soul. Sometimes I felt like two entirely different people, one who was fine and comfortable and fun, and the other who was a terrified speck of boring nothingness, and I couldn’t even begin to explain why these two separate sides of me existed.

When we pulled up to the church building and parked, the feeling of dread became even stronger. My brother and sister piled out of the van, jogging toward the youth group building, chatting excitedly. I should be excited like them, right? Of course youth group was fun, there were games and friends and everything. But there were also people here who had been my friends once, but I had let them slip away, and that terrified me even more. I was a failure of a friend, so why should I be making new friends who I would just inevitably let down?

I slowly climbed out of the car, slamming the door behind me, and trudged toward the brightly lit church buildings. Mom and Dad headed toward the big steeple-topped sanctuary, and I veered off to follow the trail of teenagers heading into the Sunday school building. There were bunches of friends talking together as they walked, and when I entered the building, loud chatter and music overwhelmed every other sense. I made my way down the familiar hallway and into the big meeting room, my head down and eyes glued to my feet. The room used to be much smaller, but the youth group had grown so much recently that they had knocked down a wall to make the room twice as large. That room was brightly lit, loud, and filled to the brim with chairs.

I glanced around the full room and saw my brother and sister off with their friends. I spotted some people I knew, but slunk over to one of the chairs in the back far corner, setting down my Bible case and purse to claim by unobtrusive spot. I stared at the seat, torn between just sitting down and actually walking around and finding somebody to say hi to. My plan to be a “princess,” to be different and talk to somebody, suddenly seemed like an utterly silly and pointless plan. After all, I had totally forgotten to hold my head up as I walked in. If I had messed that part up, what was the point of continuing? I had a feeling I was just going to do the same thing I always did until service started and the social portion of the evening was over — sit quietly in my chosen seat, reading or looking around, not causing a ruckus so I could go unobserved. I hated, yet desperately needed, the solitude I created. There was no way I could draw attention to myself. I was being a complete fool.

As I started to perch myself noncommittally on the edge of my chair, I looked over and happened to catch a glimpse of my crush, who was animatedly talking to a huge group of kids who looked like they were hanging on his every word. I stood back up and took a tentative step out into the room. Not toward him, God no. He terrified the life out of me. But there was a game console plugged into a TV in a corner of the room, so I wandered over in that direction. After all, everyone’s attention was on the TV, so I could kind of stand there and look social without actually socializing. Perfect.

But as I walked up, the youth pastor began calling everyone over so the service could start. Great, I had wasted too much time waffling and now I had run out of time. I hadn’t even looked one person in the eye since I’d gotten here. Nobody knew or care I was here. It was my own fault, but it didn’t change the sting of solitude.

I distracted myself somewhat during the singing and preaching parts of the night, as I could bend my mental energies upon God and the Bible and not myself. I could forget about my own social shortcomings while pondering over how the devil was a lion who was walking around looking for his next meal, and how that meal might be me! Metaphorically, of course. But it was a mental image that was terrifying in a way that relieved me of my small, everyday fears.

As the service ended, we broke out into our small groups. I followed the group of other ninth-grade girls into the small classroom that was normally a kindergarten classroom, and we folded ourselves into the tiny chairs and sat around in a circle. This part of the evening was also quite dangerous, as there was the potential to be asked to share a prayer request, or read a verse, or disclose some thoughts, or even pray aloud. I steeled myself for the inevitable battle between silence and disappointment that would ensue within my soul even as I listened to our group leader begin asking some girls to share their opinions on the sermon.

Then, my eyes looked up. I saw a girl I had been classmates with last year, before I had dropped out to be homeschooled. Our eyes met. She smiled. I smiled. I looked back down, but I felt something warm inside my chest, buried down amidst the feelings of intense awkwardness. Somebody, somebody had looked at me! I had looked somebody in the eye!

Even as I silently made it through the small group session and silently walked back to the car after dismissal, I nurtured this small flame inside myself. I should be disappointed I hadn’t actually said the words “hi,” but I was more elated than anything else. Even if I had only achieved part of my goal, I had done something different. Who needed words to communicate, anyways? Sometimes, you don’t need words to say hello.

If this was just the first step on a journey of a thousand of them, then I was on my way. Maybe someday, someday, I could meet somebody new and smile at them and say ,“Hi! Nice to meet you!” Maybe someday, I could go into new situations and feel confident. Maybe someday, I could feel cool and part of something. Maybe someday, I could stand in front of a group of people and talk out loud. I could get there. I could do it. I would fail and try, fail and try again, but nobody could stop me.

I was just beginning to change.

Getty image by The Good Brigade

Originally published: February 15, 2022
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